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In the Book Review

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review.

I'm considering setting up a "terms of art" page for this feature. "Storytelling" means something very specific in this space. It is not a good thing, to begin with. Storytelling is a substitute for critical appraisal. What the storyteller does is tell the story, basically, of the book under review, without much concrete reference to the manner in which the reviewed author tells it. The worst kind of storytelling leaves you confused as to how much the reviewer knew about a subject before he opened the book and how much he learned from it. The book itself is occluded by the storytelling. Storytellers are abusing their privileges as reviewers, and their names ought to be removed from editors' lists.

Fiction & Poetry??

This week's poet is Hayden Carruth, whose Toward the Distant Islands: New and Selected Poems is not particularly well-served by Brian Henry's review. Mr Henry talks a lot about Mr Carruth's career but hardly quotes any poetry. As an appreciation of the poet's art - meant for readers already familiar with Mr Carruth - the piece may have some virtue, but it is an almost completely useless review.

On balance, this week's fiction reviews are good: they get across what kind of reading each will involve. The excpetion is Paul Gray's review of Alice McDermott's After This. I can't quite decipher it. After a bit of storytelling, he writes, "Once this hectic episode concludes, McDermott's narrative turns episodic and digressive, and After This begins to resemble a photo album with many missing snapshots and pages. Ms McDermott happens to write very beautifully; an album of her snapshots might be all the more beguiling for missing a few pictures. But Mr Gray doesn't talk about the writing at all; it's clear that the book bored him.  Allegra Goodman tries to give Jennifer Gilmore's Golden Country a good review, but in the course of doing her job - discussing Ms Gilmore's writing - she fails.

The effect is a kind of footnoting that distances the reader from the characters. It is one thing to write a novel set in the past, another to burden its characters with such an intense consciousness of American history. They swing dangerously close to emblematic significance when they need to breath.

Thank you, Ms Goodman. Claire Dederer, similarly, is very clear about the drawbacks of Anna Quindlen's new novel, Rise and Shine:

Anna Quindlen has built a brilliant career out of exploring dichotomies. ... Two-sided arguments live and breathe - and breed - in columns.

Fiction, with its deeper characterizations and shades of gray, is a less promising habitat for such polarization, but here Quindlen is still much given to this tactic.

Not the most elegant sentence, there at the end, but it's informative. A O Scott is equally informative about Nell Freudenberger's much-anticipated first novel, The Dissident.

Like the stories in ... Lucky Girls, the set pieces in The Dissident ... have the hard, polished sparkle of tiny gems. The problem is that they feel haphazardly strung, and on a rather flimsy wire. Quite a bit happens in the book: at times subplots seem to shoot out in all directions. But somehow neither full comic momentum nor dramatic density is achieved, and the delicate thematic counterpoint that would have linked Yuan's story with Cece's is missing.

Jeff Turrentine's review of Wizard of the Crow, by Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong'o, is generous; here, storytelling is appropriate. Mr Ngugi has written a fable about the corruption of African governments, and although Mr Turrentine believes that it lacks "the distilled smoothness of a story passed down over many generations," he praises the writer's acuity.

... Ngugi has flown over the entire African continent and sniffed out all of the foul stenches rising high into the air: complacency toward despotism, repression of women and ethnic minorities, widespread corruption and - undergirding all of these - a neocolonial system in which today's lending banks and multinationals have supplanted yesterday's overlords. But from that altitude he can also see a more hopeful sign: large masses of people coming together, sharing triumphant stories and casting spells.

Although I can't let Mr Turrentine's "undergirding" stench pass without a small rap on the knuckles.

Two Italian novels are reviewed on facing pages. Christopher Bray raves about I'll Steal you Away, by Niccolò Ammaniti: "Anyone who thought The Bicycle Thief told them all they needed to know about injustice has another think coming." (The novel's translator is Jonathan Hunt.) "I'll Steal You Away will do just that." Vendela Vida is almost as enthusiastic about Andrea Canobbio's The Natural Disorder of Things (translated by Abigail Asher), but she points to the following passage from the novel as perhaps indicative of the author's ambivalence:

The only monument I'm interested in is the monument to my own obsessions; the only celebration that of my own fixations, the only eulogy, for my own visions. The only things that fascinate me are the ideas running through my head.

That ought to be enough to go on.

Sylvia Brownrigg admires A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, a 9/11 novel by Ken Kalfus, but lets us know that it's strong stuff:

Kalfus's daring, intelligent exploration of animosity in its various forms (spousal and familial, political and religious) is a novelistic evocation of global despair: "This was a world of heedless materialism, impiety, baseness and divorce. Sense was not made, this was jihad."

Julia Scheeres is not so enthusiastic about The Widower, by Liesel Lutzenberger.  

The abbreviated chapters, although beautiful vignettes, don't always cohere. We meet the characteers as they're reeling form personal tragedies ... but the impact of these blows is weakened by herky-jerky chronology and suspiciously convenient plot twists.

Finally, Sarah Bird's The Flamenco Academy gets a dandy review from Maggie Galehouse. "Only an agile writer can sketch four complete characters while filtering most of the action through the perceptions of one," she writes, going on to say that Ms Bird is such a writer.


The most important nonfiction title in this week's Review is undoubtedly the book on the cover, Nicholas Lemann's Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War. Historian Sean Wilentz finds it "an arresting piece of popular history," and adds, "We are still living with the consequences of what Lemann presents as the 'last battle of the Civil War'." The long review tells enough of the book's story - "Redemption," in case you didn't know, was the Southern term for the end of Reconstruction - to to persuade anyone remotely interested in national affairs that Redemption is a must-read.

By a curious chance, Jason Sokol's There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975 is also reviewed this week. The book covers the "last battle" in a more recent phase. Reviewer James Goodman presses the importance of the subject but regrets the poor quality of this book's organization. "Worst of all, the book is wholly lacking in design: a messy subject is no excuse for a messy book."

Christopher Caldwell writes favorably of Ian Buruma's Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance, but his review is not as good as it might be. Mr Buruma's story sells itself in summary form, so no harm is done, but Mr Caldwell ought to have indulged in less storytelling and more engagement with Mr Buruma's book. We oughtn't to have to wait until the last sentences of the piece to read Mr Caldwell's sharpest insight.

Being thus torn between idealization of the West's openness and contempt for its naiveté is "not necessarily a paradox," Buruma says. If he is right, it's a non-paradox that should make us uncomfortable. It would mean that many of the freedoms we take for granted are not a triumph over decadence but another name for it.

Matthew Scully makes The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, by Edward O Wilson, sound like a very important book indeed.

More out of habit that considered judgment, Wilson believes, many religious people and especially conservative Christians tend to brush off environmental causes as liberal alarmism, vaguely subversive, and in any case no concern of their. Wilson's book is a polite but firm challenge to this mind-set, seeking to ally religion and science - "the two most powerful forces in the world today" - in an ethic of "honorable" self restraint toward the natural world.

(How I wish that Mr Wilson's identification of the world's two most powerful forces were true.) Robin Marantz Henig is appropriately brisk about Louann Brisendine's The Female Brain:

If Brizendine had chosen to describe more of these experiments, preferably in the text itself, she might have made a real contribution to our understanding of how scientists know that make and female brains are different, and how these differences manifest themselves in everyday life. As it is, we're unable to judge the evidence for ourselves.

Alan Wolfe, who always keeps a steady eye on the stitching that keeps society civil, reviews Michael Bérubé's What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts? Classroom Politics and "Bias" in Higher Education. While he does not agree with Mr Bérubé's claim that there is no liberal bias in American higher education, he likes Mr Bérubé a lot, and compares him very favorable to former Marxist conservative critic David Horowitz:

Since right-wing critics like Horowitz focus so much on left-wing English departments, it is appropriate that Michael Bérubé, who teaches literature at Penn State, has become Horowitz's most engaged critic. In What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts? Bérubé comes off as spunky, likable and anything but a left-wing extremist ... and he convinces me that Horowitz is as unpleasant as he is ungracious.

This is perhaps the best review in the current issue. In Will You Die With Me? My Life and the Black Panther Party, Flores A Forbes anatomizes the thuggery in which he participated as a young man. Stanley Crouch writes,

Part of the power of the book is seeing this man slowly shocked free of the iceberg of ideology to which he had submitted and for which he was willing to achieve goals "by any means necessary." Much of its value is that it helps to make up for a decided shortcoming of our national literature, which has never sufficiently examined the radical politics of the 60's.

Brendan Vaughan's review of I'm Proud of You: My Friendship With Fred Rogers is so favorable that I'm tempted to read Tim Madigan's book, even though Mister Rogers's Neighborhood, which was a bit after my time, always made me feel that I was on the verge of running amok.

But the rare face-to-face scenes contain the book's most delightful moments, offsetting the author's schmaltzier instincts and letting the otherworldly goodness of Mister Rogers shine through.

Mr Vaughan also passes on the unsurprising news that Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister.

"Sad to say," writes Jennifer Homans, of Irina Baronova's Irina: Ballet, Life and Love,

Baronova does not seem to have acquired great perspective with
her years. Like a child, she tells us everything: sprawling to over 500
pages, her book gives as much weight to adolescent crushes and invidious
gossip as to her experiences working with choreographers and dancers like
Léonide Massine, Michel Fokine, and Bronislava Nijinska. Rarely reflective,
she offers surprisingly little insight into her own life and often resorts
to cliché...

Ms Homans fills out her review
with a lot of storytelling. Perhaps this book ought to have been reserved for a
Nonfiction Chronicle.

Aside from calling the book "unstintingly admiring if
overlong," reviewer Stephen Burt has nothing much to say about John Haffenden's
William Empson: Among the Mandarins, the first of three projected volumes
of biography. Instead, Mr Burt indulges in the worst sort of storytelling,
filling us in on the outlines of the poet and wanderer's life without the
slightest attribution. Is this an Empson that Mr Burt already knew about? Or is
it a portrait at least partly distilled from Mr Haffenden's effort? Because it
completely fails to convey an idea of the quality of Among the Mandarins,
it is a totally useless review. It's what I call a "cheater": a very readable
resume that provides a dash of instant education to the attentive reader. Don't
know about Empson? Now you do. It's like trying to learn the history of
classical music from liner notes. Worse, really.

Emily Bazelon's review of Not a Suicide Pact: The
Constitution in a Time of National Emergency
, Richard A Posner's provocative
call for civil disobedience on the part of the government is lucid enough to
make Judge Posner's manly views on civil rights intelligible.

Take the power to torture a suspect or to suspend the right to
challenge a detention through a habeas corpus challenge. Posner thinks these
powers are sometimes necessary, and childes civil libertarians for asserting
otherwise. But that doesn't mean he wants the legislature or the courts to
give them to the executive ahead of time. Instead, government officials
should make do without legal cover.

On the
very next page of the Review, Martin Walker reviews Louise Richardson's
What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat.

Richardson goes on to argue that the policies of the Bush
administration have provided Al Qaeda with great renown and monstrous
overreaction - precisely the stimulants it needs to prosper. By declaring
"war" on terrorism, the White House has defined the struggle against Al
Qaeda essentially as a military problem, best managed by the Pentagon. This
flies in the face of all available evidence from successful antiterror

Mr Walker notes that Ms
Richardson, briefly an IRA operative, teaches at Harvard and organizes "war
games." A very good review. Michael G Santos, currently serving a 45-year
sentence for cocaine trafficking, has used his spare time to write Inside:
Life Behind Bars in America
. According to Tara McKelvey, it "lays out a
powerful case for prison reform." However,

His writing is stilted (he's no Jean Genet), and the narrative
jumps, jarringly, from prison to prison (he's been held in at least six).
With all the blood and gore, it's hard to know where we are.

Last and least (well, aside from Irina), there's The Immortal Game: A
History of Chess, of How 32 Curved Pieces on a Board Illuminated Our
Understanding of War, Art, Science, and the Human Brain
, by David Shenk. At
least the subtitle doesn't end with "...Changed the World!" Katie Hafner writes,

Critics may point out that Shenk himself isn't much of a chess
player, as he readily admits. But a popular survey like this one doesn't
need a grandmaster, and Shenk, a spry writer who has also written books on
Alzheimer's disease, technology and other subjects, has a good sense of what
might interest a general reader. Although the book's subtitle promises a
history of chess, it's more interesting pages offer something closer to
meditation, personal revelation and the exploration of what he calls "the
deep history of chess's entanglement with the human mind."

Will Self's Essay, "Céline's Dark Journey," end with the revealing disclosure
that Journey to the End of the Night "is the novel, perhaps more than any
other, that inspired me to write fiction. ... Specifically, he showed me how to
yoke the equine demands of the to the golden cart of fantasy, to create a form
of dirty magic realism." And then the lament: "Now, everything is permitted and
nothing is heard."


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